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Review: Secretariat

I recently took time out with my lovely wife to go see the new movie Secretariat: The Impossible True Story. The film is based on the excellent book of the same name written by William Nack, who is played by Kevin Connolly of Entourage fame. Coming in from the small-world file, I went to high school in Virginia with Mr Nack's daughter, Emily.

The movie is thoroughly enjoyable, though not nearly the quality of
Seabiscuit, perhaps my favorite horse-centric film. Coming as it does from Disney, it is fraught with cliches, a sappy soundtrack, and tricks to make the eyes well-up at the right moments (which mine dutifully did). There is nothing particularly exceptional about the cinematography or the acting, though Diane Lane does a nice job of portraying owner Penny Tweedy with southern pluckiness and charm and John Malkovich, playing trainer Lucien Laurin, steals every scene he is in. I think where the movie falters is in trying too hard to make the story more than it is. In Seabiscuit, there was a historical perspective that mattered. The country was in a depression, horse racing was in its prime, and that scrappy little horse gave everyone hope. In Secretariat, the filmmakers attempt to do something similar with the anti-war sentiment of the 70s, but it always feels forced and ultimately takes away from the film as a whole. Similarly, there is an attempt to make this a story of the little guy making good, but in reality, this level of horse racing has always been the sport of the wealthy, so it is a little hard to connect with a protagonist who needs to syndicate her horse for close to seven million dollars to pay an inheritance tax. In the end though, none of this matters, the four-legged subject is too enthralling to worry about film critique.

Why does Secretariat captivate so? America loves the underdog, but this is not Secretariat's story. He came from exceptional bloodlines was not small like Seabiscuit (he didn't get the nickname "Big Red" for nothing). He was favored in the Derby, even after losing the Wood Memorial, and only paid out $2.20 on a two-dollar bet at the Belmont. No, the dirty little secret is that as much as we love to root for the underdog, what Americans truly love is a winner.


Secretariat was an equine freak of nature. After his death, his heart was found to be two-and-a-half times normal size and weighed 22 lbs. When he came on the scene, no horse had won the Triple Crown since Citation in 1948 and only two horses have done it since: Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. But what solidifies him as the best race horse ever, and what captured the hearts of racing enthusiasts is the way in which he won: by dominating his peers. He broke a record for the Derby that had been held for 28 years. He probably did the same at the Preakness, though a malfunction of the official timer puts it in some dispute. But the Belmont win is what everyone remembers.

Winning the Triple Crown is no easy feat. Three races in five weeks, ending with the Belmont, the longest of the three at 1 1/2 miles. After pounding out wins at Churchill Downs and Pimlico it is a rare horse that is capable of turning around and winning at distance. Not only did Secretariat win, he won by 31 lengths and still holds the track record after 37 years, a feat that ESPN ranks just behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game on a list of greatest sports performances of all time. Like Michael Jordan, Secretariat is the gold standard all others will be compared against. Is Jordan the greatest? Kobe Bryant might have something to say about that. Is Secretariat? There's a big mare named Zenyatta who is 19-0 and set to finish up with an undefeated career on November 6th (do not miss this race). She may yet take the crown from Big Red. But it takes more than talent and a record to topple a legend, there has to be that extra, that "wow" factor, and Sercretariat's Belmont win oozes with wow.

The story is old, moviegoers know the outcome, yet the heart still pounds during race footage and you still want to stand up and cheer when Secretariat opens up his gigantic lead at the Belmont. There is something about horses; their athleticism, beauty, and nobility, that makes for captivating imagery.
Secretariat, despite its flaws, captivates and entertains, and is worth a look.
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Healthy Muscle, Happy Horse

("Equine Muscle Structure" courtesy of BH Visual Art, target="blank" >www.bhvisualart.com

Recently I have been inundated with requests to consult on cases involving equine muscles: tying up, strains, EPSM (Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy), and other primary muscle conditions. This is likely due to a number of reasons: the show season is coming to an end, miles are adding up and aches and injury are following; snow is finally clearing out of the high mountain regions and allowing horses to be taken on longer and steeper rides; and the summer heat is leading to overexertion and dehydration. Of course, muscles are important for every horse, whether for competition or just getting up that next hill in the North Cascades, and keeping those muscles as healthy as possible should be every horse owner’s goal. Like many things, prevention is a much better option than treating an emergency, so rather than discuss an individual muscle disease it makes more sense to look at what can be done to optimize muscle health.


Muscles get their energy by synthesizing ATP from ADP (don’t you wish you had stayed awake in biochemistry now?). One way to do this is called glycolysis, which uses the glygogen stored in muscle. The byproduct of this pathway is lactic acid, responsible for the “burn” we feel while working out. Another process oxidizes fat and results in the byproducts of carbon dioxide and water. Endurance horses become very efficient at using this cycle. The bottom line is that if horses have too much energy stored in the form of glycogen, and are exercised, it can result in a cascade of events that result in severe cramps, impaired blood supply to the muscles, permanent tissue damage and in some cases, severe kidney problems. Some animals are genetically predisposed to these events and have to be fed very carefully, to avoid them. Feeding concentrates (grain) in large amounts, or choosing feeds with high sugar concentrations can worsen the condition in predisposed horses, or set up less than ideal muscle function in horse that aren’t. Diets higher in fat and lower in carbohydrate can help minimize and possibly eliminate the problem in some cases, but this method of feeding is probably optimal for muscle function in all horses. This means feeding carbohydrate at less than 15% of the total weight of a diet and fat at more than 10% (in tough cases even lower carb and higher fat percentages are recommended). There are commercial feeds like Re-Leve, SafeChoice or Strategy that provide these proportions in a complete feed, but these goals can also be achieved by adding high levels of rice bran or corn oil to other diets. In any case, it’s a good place to start.


Even with a good diet, and in animals that don’t have a specific muscle dysfunction, there are supplements that can improve muscle health and help with performance.

Selenium is a trace element important for muscle and thyroid function, two tissues vital for performance. Though not a common deficiency because selenium is often added to salt blocks and commercial feeds, horses with recurring muscle problems should have selenium levels checked. This is especially important information to know before arbitrarily starting a selenium supplement, because high levels can be toxic.

Vitamin E is an excellent antioxidant that can scavenge free-radicals and decrease muscle damage from exercise--microscopic tears that result in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Supplementation reduces the sore-muscle grumpiness of horses and helps that Monday morning ache of weekend-warrior trail horses. Most horses can get by on 1000-2000 IU per day, though horses with specific diseases and those in intense exercise can be given double this amount with no problem.

CoQ10 makes Vitamin E more available and improves its efficiency, so CoQ10 at 100mg per day in conjunction with Vitamin E should be considered for any horse in training.


The Chinese have a unique view of muscles and performance. Exercise depletes the essential energies of the body (qi and blood) and if not replaced can lead to atrophy, cramps, and weakness that may lead to injury. There are many herbs that replace these energies. Take for example the formula
Ba Zhen Tang, which uses eight herbs to replenish both qi and blood. In it, ginseng, atractylodes, poria mushroom and honey-fried licorice replenish qi while rhemannia, angelica, white peony root, and lovage root tonify blood. Often ginger and Chinese date are also added to help digestion. From a western perspective, this combination of herbs increases red blood cells, relieves muscle spasm, stimulates the immune system, and counters the effects of adrenal stress.

For athletes, additional herbs can be added to modify this classic formula. Two of the most famous are cordyceps (see image), which helps stamina and endurance by increasing oxygen utilization and eleuthero root, which is an adaptogen that helps the body deal with stress and fatigue.

Mares and nervous horses are more prone to cramps, likely due to hormonal changes in mares and tension in nervous horses. If cramping is situational, (a mare in heat, a spooky horse in a new environment) herbs can be given for this as well. Raspberry leaf can effectively mitigate some of the hormonal changes of estrus, and valerian root can help with anxiety. Of course, traditional Chinese formulas made up of multiple herbs to address specific imbalances of an individual are also available to treat such cases.

Horses with chronic muscle disease or damage from an injury are going to need a more aggressive approach, which often means combining a strict diet with supplements, massage, herbal formulas, and acupuncture.

Every horse, pasture ornament or FEI star, has muscles, and with sound nutritional and supplement choices, those muscles can be kept as happy and healthy as possible.
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